It Starts with a Plan and Principles

“Life without a design is erratic. As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct, and beating a cowardly retreat. This will happen in all our affairs unless we remove the faults that seize and detain our spirits, preventing them from pushing forward and making an all-out effort.”
Seneca, Moral Letters, 95.46

It is pretty rare that I blog about the readings in The Daily Stoic back-to-back, but this one bounced around my head all through my workout today and I feel like flushing out my thoughts on it.

The first two sentences in this seem to summarize about a dozen “self-help” books that are on my shelf. I know that coming up with an actual plan has been incredibly beneficial for me. When I plot out every 30-minutes of my day I am much more likely to be productive and reach my fitness, writing, and work goals.

Without a plan, I wander through my day aimlessly with a to-do list that never quite gets started. I somehow find time to dick around on Facebook, watch another episode of “FaceOff” on Hulu, and masturbate but I can’t find time to roll out my legs, meditate, go for a run, or finish a work project ahead of schedule. I need structure to accomplish my goals and reach my full potential.

There is some danger to structure though if it is held too tightly. There needs to be some flexibility and willingness to adjust plans depending on new and unexpected circumstances. Without flexibility then I ball up into an anxious and guilt-ridden mess because my plan didn’t get accomplished. This, I think, is where the idea of principles comes in.

If you have a solid set of principles that outlines what you value and what tasks are most important then it becomes easier to say no or to shift your schedule around. For example, I have a pretty set morning schedule. I have a two-hour block that includes meditation, rolling out my body, going for a walk, reading for 30-minutes, writing a blog post, and a few other things. I wake up at around 5 am so that I can get most of these things done before Anna wakes up. More recently though, she has been working the opening shift and getting up around the same time as me. Now, the morning is filled with distractions that make my morning routine nearly impossible to finish (and impossible to finish well).

So, my principles come into play. One of my principles is to prioritize my relationship with her and the limited time we see each other. I have now shifted my “morning routine” into two parts when she has an opening shift. It has taken me a little while to get used to this, mostly because I get kind of crazy anxious when things shift out of control (I’m really working on this), but now I can plan for this interruption.

Another example is if my boss sends me an unexpected email about a project that he wants help on. I may have my workday planned and this interruption can send me into a tailspin. But, one of my principles is to thoroughly think through potential problems ahead of time and come up with a contingency plan. To address this interruption I may contact my boss and ask for a specific deadline and then either shift my other work around or simply note the new task in Asana and forget about it until a later day. Also, I think the bupropion is helping a lot with preventing these tailspins of anxiety when plans change.

As Seneca said, in order to prevent a cowardly retreat (giving up on projects, wasting moments of our limited life, not living up to our potential, avoiding difficult passions) you need a flexible plan and clear principles. Which is basically what the following books were kind of getting at and provide tools to address this universal issue. It is amazing how the wisdom from 2,500 years ago is applicable today.

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